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Ten Controversial Live TV Music Performances

by Christopher Dale
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Sometimes creative types just refuse to conform. And sometimes, you can’t just edit it out. Harmonious humping, political picture desecration, and aiding and abetting arson are just a few on-stage antics broadcast live to millions.

Whether shameless publicity stunts or poor spur-of-the-moment decisions, the ensuing controversies are often half the fun. In chronological order, here are ten things musicians have been caught in the act doing while doing their act.

Related: Top 10 Live Music Mess-Ups, Falls, And Fails

10 Holy Humpin’ Hound Dog

Elvis – Hound Dog & Dialogue – Milton Berle Show – 5 June 1956

Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut album was released in March 1956, and by the middle of that year, he was well on his way to becoming The King. The smash-hit “Heartbreak Hotel” rocketed to #1 on the charts, and plans were in the works for his first movie. With the possible exception of cultural appropriation, Elvis could do no wrong.

Presley had already appeared on national television several times by June of that year, but it was his performance on The Milton Berle Show that brought his career’s first full-blown controversy. Despite the date being a Tuesday, for Elvis, it was hump day.

Performing his latest single, “Hound Dog,” Presley pumped and thrust his way across the stage at a time when sitcom married couples slept in separate beds. Careful there, fella, or you might catch something far worse than a rabbit.

Critics across the country slammed the performance for its “vulgarity,” “appalling lack of musicality,” and—oddly considering the song’s title—”animalism.” The official magazine of the Catholic Church’s Jesuit sect ran a piece called “Beware Elvis Presley,” which in retrospect seems like deflection.

In the aftermath, Ed Sullivan, already TV’s most popular variety show host, declared he’d never have Presley on. By August, though, he relented and signed the poke-happy performer to an unprecedented $50,000, three-show contract. However, the performances’ camera angles were tightly controlled, keeping a sexually safe distance—and only above the waist.

9 High Times: The Doors Do Ed Sullivan

The Doors – Light My Fire – Ed Sullivan Show 1967

Three years after The Beatles sang three catchy-but-banal songs on The Ed Sullivan Show (“She Loves You,” “All My Loving,” and “Till There Was You”), both rock and rock lyrics had significantly matured. But ol’ Ed wasn’t having it.

On September 17, 1967, The Doors were invited to perform their hit “Light My Fire” from the band’s self-titled debut album. They were popular, yes, but hadn’t cemented their envelope-pushing legacy just yet, and likely Sullivan had never heard of them until he glanced at the pre-show guest list.

Someone apparently alerted Sullivan to an arguably controversial line in the song: “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” a double entendre alluding to both happiness and drug use. A firm believer that there’s no hope in dope, Sullivan personally visited the band’s dressing room before the show and demanded that “higher” be changed to “better”—which, of course, doesn’t even come close to rhyming with “fire.”

Frontman Jim Morrison agreed…then sang the original lyrics anyway. Sullivan, who had a history of censoring acts he considered racy (including the aforementioned Presley), banned The Doors for life.

8 To Heel with It: Madonna’s Improper Improv

In 1984, the then-fledgling MTV Network hosted its first annual Music Video Awards. The show opened with a showstopper: Madonna, already a superstar, kicked off the evening performing her smash hit, “Like a Virgin.”

The set featured a traditionally virgin scene: A wedding-dress-clad Madonna atop a giant wedding cake. A little parade float-ish, but okay. The beat started, and Madonna began crooning. Then…her shoe fell off.

That’s right: television’s steamiest, sexiest live performance to date was precipitated by a dropped high heel. To make the mistake seem planned, Madonna promptly kicked off the other. Then, as the song progressed, she descended the cake to stage level. There, she realized the only way to make retrieving her shoes look natural was to crawl around on the ground.

Decades later, Madonna shared her thinking with talk show host Jay Leno: “So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just pretend I meant to do this,’ and I dove on the floor, and I rolled around.”

Her dress stuck to the floor, exposing her undergarments. Only then did Madonna make an active choice to lean into controversy. Instead of reverting to her rehearsed routine, she thrust and gyrated her way across the stage in a pantomimed portrayal of what “touched for the very first time” means.

Many—even her own manager—thought Madonna had just ruined her blossoming career. Yet, four decades later, she’s sold more records than any other female artist.

7 Out of Sync: Milli Vanilli’s Downfall

milli vanilli concert FAIL (1990)

In the end, a pair of fakers had no one to blame their comeuppance on. Not even the rain.

In 1990, Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan—better known as the pop duo Milli Vanilli—took home the Grammy for Best New Artist. One reason for this was the unimpressive competition; the most prominent also-ran was Tone Loc, of the female-tested and Bill Cosby-approved “Funky Cold Medina.”

Another reason is that despite the embarrassing live performance we’ll discuss shortly, the Grammys had never really penalized live lip-syncing. Especially as music acts incorporated increasingly complicated dance moves, pre-recording live performances wasn’t considered a critical dealbreaker.

But sometimes, a screwup leads to a spiral. On July 21, 1989, during an MTV Concerts performance of the hit song “Girl You Know It’s True,” a record skipped and repeated, blaring the line “Girl you know it’s” over and over. Milli or Vanilli (who the hell knows which was which) panicked and ran offstage.

Temporary hiccup, right? Wrong. In the ensuing months, suspicions mounted that the duo was not only lip-syncing live music but also that the voices weren’t even their own. Say it isn’t true, girl. The two were revealed as nothing more than pretty poster boys and were summarily stripped of their award—the only take-back-sie in Grammy history.

6 Let Her Rip

Fight the REAL Enemy! Bob:Marley’s ‘War’ performed by Sinéad o’Connor!

Irish singer Sinead O’Connor is best known for two things. The first is 1990’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a ballad that has graced several “Top 100 All Time” lists. When Prince remakes your song, as he did in 1993, you’re doing something right.

O’Connor’s second claim to fame, however, was far more controversial. In hindsight, however, many find it prescient.

In October 1992, O’Connor was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Her second song was an a cappella ballad disparaging racism and abuse. She then picked up a photo of Pope John Paul II, exclaimed, “Fight the real enemy,” and tore the picture in half on live television.

At the time, O’Connor claimed the act was to protest the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church—an accusation that has been broadly substantiated in the three decades since. Many Catholic higher-ups deserved a hell of a lot more than bad publicity.

Regardless, the backlash was fierce. Not only SNL but its network, NBC, banned O’Connor for life, and she was booed offstage at a Bob Dylan tribute. The highest-profile dis came the following week on SNL when guest host Joe Pesci taped the photo back together and threatened to smack O’Connor in a monologue that doesn’t age particularly well.

5 The Least Surprising Band Ban Ever

What do you get when you cross a conservative presidential candidate with an anarchist hard rock musical act? The most predictably controversial performance of all time, that’s what.

On April 13, 1996, billionaire businessman and recent Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes hosted Saturday Night Live. It was an odd choice because Forbes was neither charismatic nor a realistic contender for the White House. The musical guest was even odder: Rage Against the Machine was scheduled to play a pair of songs from their recently released album, Evil Empire. Um…red flag?

Anyone remotely familiar with RATM knew the album’s title didn’t allude to Russia or Nazi Germany. So Rage did what Rage does. They played an absolutely kick-ass rendition of Evil Empire’s lead single, “Bulls on Parade,” whose lyrics refer to the Pentagon, the seat of the U.S. military, as “that five-sided fist-a-gon, that rotten sore on the face of Mother Earth.”

Politics aside, this was a terrific live band performing one of their best son…wait, is that an upside-down American flag hanging from the amplifier?

Yup—though you’ll have to take our word for it because the show’s stagehands removed them quickly, and online video crops the display. Not only was RATM banned for life from SNL, but they also weren’t even allowed to play their second scheduled song that evening.

4 From Red Hot to Too Hot

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Fire – 7/25/1999 – Woodstock 99 East Stage (Official)

Thirty years after the most iconic music festival of the 20th Century, Woodstock ’99 was billed as a revival of its predecessor’s celebration of peace, love, and music. In fact, the original Woodstock’s co-founder, Michael Lang, was the brainchild of the end-of-the-millennium sequel. So, what could go wrong, right?

Well, pretty much everything. Turns out transparently recreated nostalgia, huge crowds, and price-gouging aren’t the best mix. At Woodstock ’99, fans who shelled out $150 ($250 in today’s money) for the three-day festival found more than their favorite bands. They found $5 hot dogs, $20 tee shirts, and—worst of all, considering the weekend’s searing heat—$4 bottles of water. MTV broadcast the concert live…on Pay-Per-View, at $60 a pop. How festive.

Making matters worse, on Day #2, the portable toilets began to overflow, covering the ground in human waste. Then, as temperatures approached 38°C (100°F) with little shade and ridiculously overpriced beverages, the crowd began to crack. What would eventually turn into a full-scale riot started out as a few isolated fires, as pissed-off fans literally burned off some energy, setting trash cans ablaze.

Then, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came on and broke into a rendition of…you guessed it, Jimi Hendrix’s classic, “(Let Me Stand Next to Your) Fire.” After that, the number of conflagrations grew exponentially, chaos quickly ensued, and here’s some fun footage of Gen X going apeshit.

3 Eminem’s Same-Sex Partner

(Eminem Vs Elton John) Grammy Awards 2001.mpg

Hip-hop and the LGBTQ community have never exactly gone hand in hand. As the genre emerged, some of rap’s best artists—Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z—frequently dropped “the other f word” (rhymes with “maggot”) as a general putdown. In 1992, Ice Cube’s “Check Yo Self” dedicated an entire verse to an incarcerated rival becoming a prison queen.

One rapper, however, took gay-bashing to another level. In 2000, Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP, considered one of the best rap records of all time. One track in particular, “Criminal,” took hip-hop homophobia to new heights: “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge, that’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a f*g or lez. Or a homosex, hermaph or a tranves. So pants or dress, ‘hate f*gs?’ the answer’s ‘yes.’”

Ouch. The uproar was both immediate and understandable. The Grammys faced a conundrum: the odds-on favorite to win Best Rap Album was a PR nightmare.

Eminem was just as skeptical. “I was like, ‘The only way I’ll perform at the Grammys is with Elton John,’” he later told MTV News. “And I was saying it in kind of jest, thinking it would never happen.”

But happen it did. Elton John played piano and sang the hook to the smash hit “Stan,” an eerie anthem chronicling an obsessed fan. The song ended, the crowd erupted, and Eminem saluted the viewing audience with a double middle finger.

2 The Nip Slip Seen ‘Round the World

On February 1, 2004, the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show featured Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, who were dating at the time. As the NSYNC alumnus belted out the last line of his hit song “Dance With Me”—a promise to “have you naked by the end of this song”—he put his hand where his mouth was by tearing a section from Jackson’s shirt. Briefly, the viewing audience of 150 million saw her exposed right breast, albeit with tape over the nipple.

Kiddies, meet t*tties. So much for a family-friendly environment.

Soon, Jackson’s manager released a statement about the nascent Nipplegate: “[Timberlake] was supposed to pull away [Jackson’s] rubber bustier to reveal a red lace bra. The garment collapsed, and her breast was accidentally revealed.” The phrase “wardrobe malfunction” then entered the lexicon.

MTV, who produced the halftime show, wasn’t buying it. Its own statement: “The tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance.” The media largely sided with MTV’s version, declaring the act a shameless publicity stunt.

Jackson’s singles and music videos were subsequently blacklisted from various Viacom Media holdings, including the CBS Network, MTV, and the Infinity Broadcasting radio station group. A likely nod to racism, sexism, or both, Timberlake suffered no such backlash despite being the one who did the nip rippin’ in the first place.

1 A Bad Girl on a Bad Song: M.I.A. Outdoes Madonna

M.I.A. at Super Bowl Halftime in HD

Madonna is making her second appearance on this list, but this time, the Material Girl is really just a material witness. In 2012, Madonna was tapped to perform the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show. Not exactly a target audience match, but her career credentials were undeniable.

Unfortunately for hundreds of millions of eardrums, among the songs Madonna performed was “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the awful first single from her awful 2012 album, MDNA. Come on, lady…you have 12 #1 hits to your name, and we get this drivel?

The song’s lone bright spots are rap features from Nicki Minaj and M.I.A., two highly talented performers who also served to make the show more current. Minaj has several Grammy nominations to her credit, while M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is routinely ranked among the best songs of the 21st Century.

Minaj’s cameo went off without a hitch. M.I.A.’s? Not so much. The “Bad Girls” singer wrapped up her appearance by brandishing a middle finger to the international viewing audience.

The NFL sued M.I.A. for breach of contract for—and I quote—”tarnishing the goodwill and reputation” of a league that brought the world such role models as dog-murderer Michael Vick and human-murderer Aaron Hernandez. M.I.A. ridiculed the league for its insincere virtue signaling.

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen
Christopher Dale

Chris writes op-eds for major daily newspapers, fatherhood pieces for and, because he's not quite right in the head, essays for sobriety outlets and mental health publications.

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